Most colleges have a comparative literature program, which typically allows young people to spend lots of their parents’ hard-earned money and plenty of Pell Grant taxpayer largesse to read obscure authors in tandem with the deep thoughts of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and similar literary parlor-trick artists. You can learn something in such programs – like how to bore the crap out of someone at a cocktail party. But it’s usually not a productive venture, no matter how much you spend on tuition, and it’s often a ticket to a post-grad barista gig.
Despite those caveats, I was thinking about the value of comparing ideas from different realms because of two books I’m currently reading. The first is a book I’ve been meaning to get to for some time now, Lawrence Wright’s “The Looming Tower,” which provides a valuable and readable history of the origins of Al-Qaeda by detailing the careers of Osama bin Laden, Zayman al-Zawahiri and the various blackguards and henchmen that are part of the Al-Qaeda orbit. At the same time, I have been re-reading one of my favorite novels, William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.” I have put “Lord of the Flies” on my 11-year old son’s summer reading list and I wanted to refresh myself with it before he starts into the book. I have long believed that “Lord of the Flies” is one of the best parables of modern life that you could find and in re-reading it, I remain convinced of it. I think every boy should read this book, because the story explains, in ways better than I am capable, the principal problem of civilization. That is, how do you control the impulses of young men?
As I look at “The Looming Tower,” I am struck by how much the problem in the Middle East, and in Islam generally, is really not that exotic at all, despite the barbarism that has marked the Islamist movement. The problem in so many of the places is pretty simple – you have a lot of young men who have directionless lives, filled with boredom and arbitrary rules. Poverty is not the problem; as has been consistently demonstrated, some of the worst of the Al-Qaeda operatives have been scions of the middle and upper classes in their respective countries. What has happened is that the Salafist strain of Islam, combined with the notion of takfir, have been combined in a way that essentially allows these folks to take whatever action they need to accomplish their goal, even if that means killing thousands of innocent people, often in the most barbaric ways. Al-Qaeda gives these directionless youths something to believe in, and something that is especially powerful since it gives them dominion over others. It becomes pretty easy to see the similarities between Jack Merridew and bin Laden, to say nothing of the similarities between Piggy and, say, the modern Democratic Party.
I commend both books to your attention. If you’d like another book that would also make a good companion to this topic, try Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believer.”